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The Coming Shakeup in American Higher Education

September 28, 2011

Due to high tuition, room and board costs that far exceed the ability of students and parents to pay for a college education, education consumers are beginning to vote for lower cost alternatives. Community colleges are bulging at the seams with escapees from high cost “non profit” colleges and universities. But, after two years they have to go somewhere and flagship state universities are expensive. Even two years at a public institution can run in excess of $30,000.

The budding for-profit education sector offers some relief with lower costs alternatives online or in classrooms.

Here is a list Yorktown University compiled when looking at the possibility of opening a classroom “campus” in leased office space in Florida:

With new proprietary institutions, and some non-profits like Liberty University, exploiting the efficiencies of the Internet, alternatives to higher cost institutions are beginning to compete successfully with traditional colleges and universities. Some predict that the traditional sector can’t compete and that a major shakeout in the higher education industry is about to occur. At the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, Duke Cheston, writes about a novel Internet-based institution, Western Governor’s University.

Founded by Governor Mike Leavitt of Utah when he was Governor, WGU offers competency based instruction. Students pay $3000 per term and, as Mr. Cheston reports, “students study by themselves, receive regular advice and encouragement from a dedicated adviser (“mentor”), and get help from experts when needed.”

That, of course, is a radical departure from education as we know it which involves someone who knows something about his field, is, hopefully, passionate about his discipline, and conveys that passion and knowledge to his students. In practice, the general public isn’t disciplined sufficiently to educate themselves in this manner and the dropout rate at Internet based institutions that don’t closely work with their students can approach 70% of all enrollments.

Though the price is right, for most students the future is not found at Western Governor’s University. A better model, though one that has run in political opposition, is Straigtherline that offers a Freshman college year for $999. Though that model is, like WGU, self-directed study, students may choose to enroll in Straighterline courses that have been adopted at “Partner Colleges.” That option requires that students pay the higher tuition costs at the partners, but courses have a “local” instructor, students become students of the partner college and credits earned at some partners that are regionally accredited may be transferred to other regionally accredited institutions. If students decide they want a campus experience, they can enroll in studies at the partner college.

In the final analysis, however, the world of Internet education is best represented at established for-profit institutions like Yorktown University, Capella University, University of Phoenix, American Public University and others that have learned how to instruct students online.

Traditional institutions that are beginning to seek new income sources are choosing Internet instruction because it seems cheaper, but without an infrastructure that supports students who study at a distance, they tend to be abject failures. A common complaint is that instructors are not available for engagement with students, their work is graded by instructors who don’t mark up their student’s work, and generally students find that they are paying the same high tuition costs but they are abandoned to complete work on their own.

Traditional institutions largely do a good job at what they do, but the instructors at these institutions have never been instructed in distance learning, nor did most enter the teaching profession to become “teachers.” They tend to be researchers, specialists with subsidiary interests far away from their classrooms. And, in fact, traditional institutions do not reward teachers, they reward researchers who bring prestige and valuable grants and contracts to their institutions.

There is something going on in the world of higher education that portends major changes that could radically reshape how education products are delivered to education consumers. How soon that shakeup will occur cannot be predicted, but it will occur.

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